Reuse through Resale: Our Possessions’ Second Lives (or Third, or Fourth…)

Halloween is a great opportunity to get into thrifting; most costumes are, by design, pieces we only wear once or a small number of times because they aren’t like the clothes we would normally wear. As we approach the Official Holiday of Clothing we’ll Never Wear Again, there’s no better time to examine our buying habits when it comes to all things attire-related. This year, you can choose to be mindful of the ways your purchasing habits impact your budget, the economy, and the environment – all while creating an unforgettable look either for one night or every day.

Many of us know that the current fashion industry is wasteful, but did you know that the average American household currently spends roughly $2000 on clothing every year? As a nation, we now buy roughly 60-70 new articles of clothing per person per year. “Fast fashion” produces cheaply-made, cheaply-priced clothing that rarely survives more than a handful of wash cycles, and it’s all priced so low that we hardly mind simply replacing it when it falls apart. The explosion in online retailers has made it easier than ever to purchase inexpensive new pieces and watch them show up at our doorstep within days or even hours. But this ends up costing us way more money in the long run even if the initial price tags are low, because we have to replace our cheap clothes so much more often. The clear ethical alternative to fast fashion is buying our clothing (costumes or otherwise) secondhand, but these options are not advertised to us relentlessly like major clothing retailers are.

So, why buy clothing that has been previously owned? A few obvious reasons come to mind such as saving money and finding unique outfits, but the environmental and ethical impacts cannot be ignored. In 2018, landfills in the United States alone received 11.3 million tons of discarded textiles, and this number has been increasing exponentially year after year. According to the US EPA, only about 15% of unwanted clothing is recycled, even though essentially all fabric is recyclable in some way. Buying secondhand is an easy way to dramatically reduce your carbon footprint by keeping usable objects out of landfills while reducing the need to produce new ones. The production of new clothes is even more environmentally harmful, and is an unnecessary environmental cost when we have an abundance of clothing in good condition being donated or discarded while we opt instead for brand new items.

That brings us to our first shopping alternative: good old fashioned thrift stores. If you haven’t been to a thrift store in a while, you’ll likely be surprised at how contemporary they’ve become. Many thrift stores are flooded with both new/trendy fast-fashion discards (for even cheaper) alongside well-made, high quality clothing at a steep discount. Instead of spending a fortune on a costume this year, why not explore the collections at your local thrift store? There are always VERY gently used Halloween costumes from years past, so you’re likely to find both the staple costumes you’d find at any current pop-up Halloween stores, as well as some vintage or uncommon costumes that you can only find there. Another option is looking through their non-costume attire and building your own DIY costume that’s guaranteed to be one-of-a-kind. The best part: you’ll save so much money on your costume, you can afford to add extra elements to make your look extra spooky.

Thinking beyond just Halloween, thrift stores and consignment stores are a gold mine in general for saving money on a custom look. Each resale store, just like any other kind of store, has its own variety of inventory, so don’t be discouraged if you didn’t find what you were looking for at one shop. Some focus more on non-clothing articles as well, so knowing where to find what you’re looking for is key. There are also fashion rental outlets like Rent the Runway or Armoire, which allow you to rent high-end clothing that you know you’ll only need for a day or two. Not only do these companies facilitate more affordable fashion moments, they also eliminate the demand for each of us to fill closets with expensive special-occasion attire that rarely gets worn. Instead of several dozen people buying duplicates of the exact same garment, one article of clothing can be rented and shared by those dozens of wearers, fulfilling the exact same purpose while using a fraction of the resources.

All these amazing one-of-a-kind shops would not be possible without an equally vibrant supply stream. Donating your own gently-used unwanted possessions contributes greatly to the resale economy and keeps secondhand markets in business. Thrift stores, charitable organizations, or even people you know or see in your community can benefit from objects that no longer serve a purpose in your life. If you want to keep it local, neighborhood or workplace swaps have become increasingly popular – namely for children’s or baby essentials, since little ones initially require a lot of “stuff” that they outgrow quickly and that just end up taking space in parents’ homes. These kinds of swaps are useful at other times of year too, especially around events or holidays when we might be looking to update our décor even though our own decorations are still in good shape. An even trade is not required; shoppers are free to take what they want, contribute what they want, do both, or do neither. The idea is to rehome useful items that would otherwise be bound for the trash. After the swap, leftover items can be donated.

You may be interested in selling some of your items instead. Garage sales have been popular for decades, but now there are a multitude of websites and apps where you can browse available wares right from your phone or computer. What began humbly as a single online resale marketplace on EBay in the 90’s, has evolved into a flourishing network over dozens of apps and features where individuals maintain control of their own buying and selling activity. E-commerce resale communities like Etsy, Facebook Marketplace, Offer Up, Poshmark, Mercari, Depop, etc. all give buyers and sellers the freedom to post their own belongings for sale, set their price, negotiate, and manage their own online store. Browsing these sites feels in some ways very similar to perusing your local thrift store, with one key additional feature: the ability to search for exactly what you’re hoping to find, across thousands of individual online “stores” across the country or across the world all at once. Whether you prefer to shop online or in person, resale options are now available in whichever format you find most useful.

Finally, many of us assume that if our old clothing items/linens are beyond a usable quality, they are trash – but this is not the case. Fabric scraps, even from stained and torn clothing, can be recycled in a range of different ways depending on the condition and fabric content. Many of these recycling methods utilize some variation of shredding the fibers to spin into new fabric or otherwise deconstructing them, so it doesn’t matter what condition the scraps are in as long as they are clean and dry. Natural fibers are also compostable, so if you just can’t bear the thought of someone in a far off recycling facility sorting through your smelly tattered gym clothes, you can bury them in the yard (just check the tags first to make sure they’re made of only biodegradable materials such as cotton, linen, wool, hemp, silk, or cashmere). All fabrics are recyclable in one way or another, so these should never go into your trash.

Whether you’re in the market of buying, selling, or resource conservation, there has never been an easier time to dive into the world of resale. For more information about the problematic fast fashion industry, we recommend the documentary The True Cost, available for free on Youtube. Statistics listed came from the US Environmental Protection Agency website and are the most recent available:

Some of our favorite resale shops around the city:

      • Vintage Underground Boutique – Wicker Park: Clothing, accessories, antiques. High quality fashionable pieces.
      • The Brown Elephant – 3 locations: All types of unique and vintage items from furniture to clothing to gifts. Haggling is allowed. Profits support the Howard Brown Health Center.
      • Segunda Alicia Thrift Store – Pilsen: Clothing, household, gifts. Unique selection of items all in good to new or like-new condition.
      • Crossroads Trading – 3 locations: clothing and accessories. Buy/sell/trade platform where clients can trade their gently used items for cash or store credit. The incentive brings in highly marketable items so the selection is always on trend.